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Diagnosing learning disabilities at university

ByLaura Wise

Nov 21, 2017

The prevalence of learning disabilities is a significant issue within today’s society. Awareness has increased immeasurably in the last 20 years, most noticeable in our schools and universities, where disability services are increasingly available to assist those with learning difficulties.

Specific learning difficulties (SpLD) affect the way in which information is learned and processed. They are neurological, often genetic and, contrary to many people’s assumptions, have no correlation with intelligence. A popular example of a genius with learning difficulties is Albert Einstein, one of the most celebrated and greatest minds of all time.

SpLD covers many different types of learning difficulties, most commonly dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and ADD, which affect around 10 per cent of the population and is usually hereditary.

Someone with dyslexia often mixes up letters and words, and struggles with spelling, commonly switching letters.

While dyslexia is most evident from the perspective of literacy, its effects do not exclusively effect this. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing and sequencing.

Fourth year neuroscience student, and dyslexia sufferer Rupert Clark identified his difficulties as being slow at writing and reading, and often missing the point of questions. This, as well as his older sister having dyslexia, led to him seeking a diagnosis.

SpLDs normally present themselves at an early age, but due to the effects they have on a student’s ability to write exams and essays, it is necessary for there to be a readily available support for those at university who have not yet been diagnosed.

The University of Edinburgh boasts an incredibly active disability service to support those who have already been diagnosed or those who need assistance in understanding and diagnosing their difficulties. The director, Sheila Williams, explained that the procedure involved in identifying those with learning disabilities. First a student (if they are already aware of their SpLD) will have checked a box on the Ucas form and, once they have an unconditional offer, the disability service contacts them at the end of July and in the first couple of weeks after term starts, inviting them to seek support.

For those students who have not had their conditions diagnosed the centre is reliant on them coming forward by choice or on recommendation from their personal tutor or peers. An educational psychologist is then consulted to give the student a diagnosis.

While there are certain standard ways that a student might be aided, such as extra time and reading time in exams, Sheila made it clear that each diagnosis was dependent on the individual and their personal needs based on the outcome from the educational psychologist.

The latest available number of students with disclosed learning disabilities, taken at the end of the academic year 2016-17, was 1,983. This is a significant proportion of the student population showing the importance of awareness and care for those with learning disabilities.

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